Every year about this time, legions of ACC fans begin to tingle with excitement. The hardwoods have opened up and college basketball is well underway. Power teams are playing their share of cupcakes and contenders in an effort to hone their squads into shape for conference play.
Mid-majors are salivating at their chance to sneak in an upset or two over quality teams. Gardner-Webb’s romp over Kentucky, UNCG’s testy victory over Georgia Tech, and Davidson’s near-miss over Carolina. Just to name a few.
The ACC’s fans see these contests as merely warm-up games, basketball fodder till the real season gets here. ACC season. For teams like Carolina and Duke, a trip to the NCAA for a chance at the national title is all but guaranteed. It’s part of the recruiting process. It’s almost a given while Roy and Mike are at the helms.
It seems that no matter how many blue-chip recruits these two programs lose to the NBA draft, or how many starters leave early, they always rebound as a national Top-25 contender.
So it makes sense that most people around here split into two factions every Autumn. You bleed one shade of blue or another. Light blue or dark blue.
Sure there are State fans and Wake Forest fans, but they are few and far between. There are even some Clemson and Maryland fans lurking in the shadows, playing hide and seek with the Hokies, Seminoles and Cavaliers.
But as allegiances go, when Duke and Carolina play, all fans take one side or the other. You either pull for one because you love them, or pull for one because you hate the other.
I grew up a Carolina fan simply for the reason that my dad was one. Normally a man of few words, I learned most of my obscenities from him while we sat on the couch watching Carolina/Duke match-ups on television. To hear it from his mouth, Dean Smith couldn’t coach a lick and made so many coaching errors, it’s a wonder he ever put a team on the court.
“The minute somebody starts hitting, he takes ’em outta the damn game!” and “Why the hell’s he playing zone now? It’s too damn late now!” and “Cain’t none of ’em hit a damn freethrow when they need it! He oughta run ’em for an hour at the next practice.”
Bill Guthridge? Pshawww. He was a capable assistant coach but don’t give the man the whole team to run. Sure he got a national title, but that was luck. And you couldn’t get your kids within a half mile when Matt Doherty had the program under his wings. Those words can’t be printed.
My dad was like so many typical ACC fans, rabid to the point of becoming emotionally involved. To ACC fans, basketball is not just a game, it’s not just a way for some kids to get college scholarships; it’s a rite of passage. A tradition. A swath of cloth in the fabric of their being. From the opening jumpball in November to the hoopla of March Madness, college basketball takes a predominant role in their lives.
The only two days you are allowed to play hooky from school and work (and are forgiven) are the Thursday and Friday of the ACC Tournament. When I went to high school, most teachers who tried to teach during those games, would give up and wheel a TV into the classroom. They knew better than to go against the grain. During the ACC tourney, you don’t just turn on the radio where you are, you go home or to a bar and watch the tourney in the presence of other enthusiastic fans.
And the most perfect ACC finals game you could hope for, the match-up an advertiser has wet dreams for, would be Carolina versus Duke. Anything goes and it’s the one contest that everyone takes definitive sides. You pull for the Heels or you pull for the Devils. Period.
UNC Chapel Hill is the oldest public university in the nation. Duke is one of the most elite private colleges in the nation. They’re separated by just a few measly miles of North Carolina hardwoods and each represents opposite ends of the spectrum. You couldn’t dream up better foes.
Even though I’m a UNCG graduate and I pull for my mighty Spartans every time they take the court, I still bleed Carolina blue. I can’t help but root for them, it’s etched into my DNA. Even today, most the clothing I own is blue. I was indoctrined as a Tar Heel from birth and there’s no escaping it. I love Carolina. If anything, just simply because I hate Duke.